Oh what a difficult start to a list-making process. 1991, the year I was born, one filled with landmark releases and a general air of pop-cultural upheaval. The alleged death of hair metal, the rise of grunge and what the A&R suits would sooner or later pigeonhole as “alt rock,” the commercialization of what DIY punk bands had pioneered long before the term “indie” became the latest signifier of hipness — so many goings on and so many albums to choose from, to the point that selecting a favorite among them required a take-no-prisoners mentality and a great deal of arbitrary flip-flopping on the basis of some pretty nebulous criteria.
So what did I end up with?
Sailing the Seas of Cheese by Primus.
Those of you who have never heard of the record and/or the band probably scoffed at the title alone. Those of you who HAVE heard of them either scoffed knowingly or applauded in solidarity. This post might cater to the latter group, but if you disagree with my choice and are still reading to find out why, I’ll do my best to lay out my logic for you. Even better, I’ll do so using the other, potentially “superior” choices that I considered before landing on Claypool & Co.’s major-label debut…
First and foremost, Seas of Cheese is a hell of a lot more fun than a lot of the most influential/impactful releases from that year — including (but not limited to) Nevermind, Ten, and Metallica’s “Black Album.” It’s also more accessible and thus re-listenable (to me) than more underground gems like Loveless, Green Mind, and Screamadelica. It’s got all the instrumental prowess/weirdness of Blood Sugar Sex Magik without any of the fratty vibes, lyrical inanity, or dubious white boy hip-hopisms (i.e. the things that make RHCP RHCP). It’s every bit as heavy as Badmotorfinger or Use Your Illusion, but the songs feel new and alien and altogether less predictable by comparison. I won’t go into Achtung Baby because any U2 post-Joshua Tree is lost on me.
Without leaning too heavily on any one influence, Seas of Cheese plays like an unlikely intersection of Jerry Reed, Funkadelic, Black Sabbath, the Police, Rush, Frank Zappa, and Tom Waits (a fellow welder of sounds who makes a cameo on “Tommy the Cat”). The members of Primus — singer/basstronaut Les Claypool, guitarist Larry Lalonde, and the double-kick DaVinci that is Tim “Herb” Alexander — knew how to make this hodgepodge of ingredients cohere: they heard the similarities between, say, “Regatta de Blanc” and “YYZ,” or “NIB” and “Super Stupid,” and maximized them to the nth degree. They understood that the kind of storytelling native to country music would work in even the most gonzo of musical contexts because they’d listened to Joe’s Garage and Rain Dogs. Their collective sense of humor — or at least Claypool’s — led them to eschew convention and genre, resulting in an album that’s as silly as it is intense.
Much the same can be said for A Tribe Called Quest and The Low End Theory (also released in ’91), on which Q-Tip, the immortal Phife Dawg (R.I.P.) and DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad brought jazz to hip-hop, sampling everyone from Art Blakey to Weather Report and even hiring the legendary Ron Carter (bassist for Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet) to lay down some live tracks. The result boasts all the amalgamated majesty and off-the-wall humor of Seas of Cheese and still ranks as an all–time classic, which is probably more than I can say for any of Primus’s albums, even though I will always cherish them on a personal level…
But eclectic tastes and oddball sensibilities will only get you so far; it’s having the chops to realize those ideas that makes all the difference. Both Primus and Tribe exemplified this maxim on their sophomore records — from Claypool’s ungodly slapping-and-tapping to Tip’s twofold rhetorical/syllabic acrobatics, you won’t find a more formidable realization of artistic intent anywhere in 1991. If you’re still not sold on my first choice — it’s only now occurring to me that this entry might read more like a tie than a definitive selection — check out “Those Damned Blue-Collar Tweekers” before you totally write the band off. Otherwise? Crank up “Show Business” and prepare yourself for the breaks.